Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomePasture HealthForageCover Crop Legumes That Are Great Forage

Cover Crop Legumes That Are Great Forage

I asked Jonathan to share this study with us for three reasons. First, it’s always nice to know that there’s another forage option to kick off the grazing season early. Second, researchers run up against a lot of the same weather and timing problems that farmers and ranchers do, and just like you, they end up making adjustments. So, though things don’t always go as planned, there’s always something helpful to be learned. Finally, the videos do a great job of showing growing points and how low growing points mean that plants can recover after being grazed. It’s information you might be able to use when evaluating your own forages. Enjoy!

Original Plan

Early in 2018, Smith Seed Services began discussing a shared research project with the folks at Clemson University’s Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, SC. Our plan was to plant legumes, mixtures, and annual ryegrasses to gauge their forage and cover crop potential. We hoped to look at survivability, forage quality, total biomass and more. Some of the plantings would be clipped to learn about regrowth and grazing/hay potential. Other plantings would be managed as a cover crop followed by a corn planting so that we could measure the nitrogen contribution of the cover crop plants.  We had plans drawn up that included plantings of existing genetics, as well as some that were so “experimental” that only handfuls of seed even existed. It was going to be a really exciting trial.

Rain Changed the Plan

As summer came to a close, we finalized our plans and chose a specific field that seemed perfect for our trial. It was even ideally located for future field days. But then came the rain – lots and lots of continuous, rainy days. First, rain pushed back our window of planting. October came, and went. Then we got word that the original site was simply not going to dry out. Bad news. Now its later than we wanted and we don’t even have a site!

The good news was that an alternative site had been found and we were assured that our trial would be planted as soon as a planting window became available. November went by, and it was still too wet. Finally, in early December, the plots were scheduled for planting. Then came trouble with the drill and only a fraction of the actual trial was able to be planted.

Well, at least we got that!

Lemonade From Lemons

Here’s a plant that says, “Graze me, graze me, graze me!”

When I went out to see the trial in January, I was warned in advance that it might not be worth continuing.  The warning was legitimate. The only part of the trial that was successfully planted was the hairy vetch and winter peas. And even that portion was full of ryegrass infestation and weeds thanks to a previous planting. Furthermore, it was actually planted in part of a pasture area that would be grazed by steers later that spring.

We discussed our options and agreed that there wasn’t much we could do to get rid of the weeds or ryegrass. So we chose to leave it in and see what happened. It was at this point that we decided to change the focus of this trial. We would now look at this as a grazing trial with an opportunity to evaluate vigor and survivability.

In this first video, I show you what happened to the plantings after being frequently grazed. You’ll see how well both hairy vetch and winter peas did under grazing, thanks to their very low growth points. On individual plants, I give you a good look at their growth points and strong, penetrating root structures that add so much to the soil structure.

In this second video, I compare the different varieties of vetch and peas we planted. While all the varieties proved to be very good forages, they each exhibited differences in root structures, growth patterns and more. These differences might help you decide what variety would work best for you.

An Important Side Note About Pre-Inoculated/Coated Seed:

The way that God created legumes is very fascinating. When properly inoculated with a compatible rhizobium, legume roots create nodules, or mini nitrogen factories, each having the ability to capture atmospheric nitrogen from the air and convert it (fixation) to a form that can be used by the plant. The plant then uses this nitrogen to grow. The more abundant and robust the nodules, the more nitrogen is available for the plant, thus maximizing the plants growth potential. While legumes can live without access to the proper rhizobium, their potential will suffer unless another source of nitrogen is available. This is the reason why farmers have grown to appreciate seed being pre-inoculated and coated. Processes such as Nitro-Coat® ensure that the proper rhizobium is in direct contact with the seed at time of planting, ensuring a greater potential for each plant to reach its optimal nodulation formation, and therefore its optimal nitrogen fixation potential. Learn more about the nitrogen cycle and Nitro-Coat® here.

What We Learned

While we were hoping for a robust trial, extensive photo opportunities, and reams of useful data, we ended up with a few rough videos and no measurable trial data, but some very digestible and useful observations.

Those observations include:

Hairy vetch and winter peas have potential to be very useful additions to grazing mixtures. 

There are differences in varieties that can help direct their usage.  

Even in this trial, where much went wrong, legumes benefit from being pre-inoculated and coated.

Want to Learn More?

Here are the varieties used in the study that are currently available. Each product link has a box for comments and questions, as well as how to find a dealer in your area.

AU Merit is ideal for grazing, hay, and cover crops. It is a proven producer of enormous amounts of forage that is ready 15 days earlier than most other cultivars. It is also a massive nitrogen producer and perfect for supporting pollinators and wildlife.


WinterKing is very cold tolerant so it can produce more biomass, making it great for grazing and for nitrogen fixing.



Patagonia Inta was bred in southern Argentina to provide early growth and cold tolerance.


WyoWinter pea has been bred for improved cold tolerance and abundant biomass.


Would you like to comment on this article or do you have a question for Smith Seed?  Send us a message.

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Jonathan Rupert
Jonathan Ruperthttp://www.smithseed.com
Jonathan Rupert has been in the wholesale seed industry for over 25 years, and works for Smith Seed Services helping with sales, marketing and product development. He is a big fan of learning from the past and being willing to try something new.


  1. My pastures filled with hairy vetch this Spring and the cattle took to it very well. But, I later read that hairy vetch has toxicity issues for grazing livestock My vet said he’d never heard of any problems.

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